Sunday, June 26, 2011

Past Life, Part II: The Spiral of Forgiveness

The nightmare comes within the first week of moving to a new place. Here I am, in a house or a dorm or an apartment, and my father shows up. He is creeping around the outside of the building, climbing up the wall to my window. He is waiting in the hallway for me to walk past. He is smashing the locks, opening the door and walking in, laughing at me as my knees give out in fear and I try to crawl away. He is grabbing me and pawing at me, running his hands over my flesh, pressing himself against me as I scream for help. I wake up covered in sweat and shaking. My new home isn't safe.

When I began talking about the abuse that had gone on for the first twelve years of my life, there were two reactions. Counselors and social workers and people used to dealing with trauma listened, and asked questions, and eventually said: "You need to reject the injury that he's done you. You need to sever the relationship, and the way you do that is by forgiving the debt that he owes you. As long as you cherish that debt, he will still have power over you."

But when I spoke candidly with the members of Grace, the people who had sat with him at church and worked with him at the college, they would frown, cut me off and say, "You need to forgive him! God wants you to have a healthy relationship with your father. If you pray, God will help you set aside your anger and be forgiving." Because I was a victim, it meant I was also a sinner. To talk about the injury meant that I was holding a grudge, and that I was judging the abuser instead of leaving the judgment up to God.

Forgiveness, as I had been taught in Sunday School, was deciding to not be angry at a person who hurt you, and to be the same kind of friends with them as you were before the injury. Forgiveness, as I had been taught by psychologists, was a process of releasing the victim and the abuser from the emotional relationship that continued to cause damage. It was clear that what I learned in church wasn't applicable. Any contact with my father resulted in some kind of freakish experience. We had never been friends and never could be; he was just too insane. There was no healthy state to be achieved in relation to him.

So I cut off contact. I stopped returning his calls. When he came to the door and asked for me, I wouldn't see him. I didn't respond to the rambling schizophrenic letters. And the direct abuse stopped, but the effects remained. Now I was far enough away that I could look back and assess the damage: I could see what the debt was.

He owed me a childhood. He owed me the ability to trust people who were big and strong and in charge. He owed me the stable income that would have meant better food and clothing and medical care. He owed me the ability to say the Lord's Prayer without cringing-- he owed me the word "father" back.

But that was a debt that nobody was going to pay, so it wasn't hard to let it go.
So I had forgiven: I'd ended the abuse and voided the debt. Check. All done.

But a few years after I cut off contact, I realized that something wasn't done yet. There was still more to go. Something of the relationship lingered, and I wanted it out of me, and I was frustrated and confused about it still being there.

In “Intimacy With God: An Introduction to Centering Prayer,” Thomas Keating uses the illustration of a spiral staircase to describe the spiritual journey. We think that we are moving two-dimensionally, he says, around and around in an endless loop, passing the same territory over and over. We feel removed from God and can’t figure out why we aren’t making progress.
What we don’t realize is that we are moving three-dimensionally, intersecting the same problems at different levels.  God is leading us down the spiral, and we have to be willing to follow, to continue wrestling with our spiritual pain, encountering the source of that pain with a new understanding of it each time, and with the ability to deal with it in a new way. Hitting the same problems over and over doesn't mean we didn't handle them the first time. It means the Spirit has something new to teach us, something that we weren't ready for the last time around.

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